|Katerina McCrimmon as Fanny Brice and
Stephen Mark Lukas as Nick Arnstein
Ah, it’s so refreshing to enjoy good old-time theatre. And with the classic Funny Girl, whose revival is touring the U.S., we are fortunate to have a splendid production making a visit at Baltimore Hippodrome’s Theatre.
Under the direction of Michael Mayer, the outstanding performances, fantastic scenery, rich period costumes, brilliant illumination and wonderful music offer an old-time theatrical feel and charm representing the 1920’s but with a modern glow.
Funny Girl is a loose biographical portrayal of dynamic entertainer Fanny Brice in the nascent days of musical theatre during the early 20th century. It chronicles her start in show business and how she defied the estimation from family and friends that she is not sufficiently beautiful to appear on stage.
But feisty Fanny, from Henry Street in New York’s lower east side, would have none of that. She knew she has the talent—singing, comedy, dancing—and through sheer determination, ambition and a little help from her eventual husband, professional gambler Nick Arnstein, she ultimately became a star in the famous Ziegfeld Follies.
Fanny’s marriage with Arnstein, which produced a daughter, had its ups and downs like many marriages. But their careers, especially his frequent “business” trips and ensuing legal troubles, kept getting in the way and sadly could not endure the challenges that they faced despite their professed love for one another.
The first act frenetically describes how Fanny overcame the
doubters and began her rise to stardom.
The second act, somewhat slower and sadder, examines the complexities of her marriage to Arnstein and how it affected her own values and the marriage’s impact on her mother, friends and associates.
Funny Girl whose score was by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and book by Isobel Lennart opened on Broadway in 1964 and launched the career of superstar Barbra Streisand in the title role. The show received eight Tony nominations for that year but had the misfortune of going up against musical juggernaut Hello, Dolly! and didn’t take home a statue. Nonetheless, Funny Girl appealed to audiences all over and a film version was introduced in 1968 with Streisand as the lead with Omar Sharif.
Nearly six decades later, the show was revived in 2022, and Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots, Newsies) modified the book for the Broadway revival.
"...an old-time theatrical feel and charm representing the 1920’s but with a modern glow."
Styne’s score is solid with two songs that are indisputable classics: “People” whereby Fanny Brice expresses her loneliness and desire to live a normal life and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” an inspiring anthem to independence.
Both of these numbers as well as a host of others are performed by an emerging charismatic star, Katerina McCrimmon, who is commanding in the lead role. One should never compare anyone to a superstar like Streisand. It just cannot and should not be done. Streisand’s simply untouchable.
However, Ms. McCrimmon’s zesty performance, her immaculate vocals and endearing personality conjures up unavoidable memories of Streisand. Diminutive in stature, I can only marvel how Ms. McCrimmon’s voice can hold up during the 140-minute show. Not only is she involved in most of the musical numbers with many of them strenuous, but her dialogue also requires a good deal of shouting or “hollering” as Fanny’s mother (Eileen T’Kaye substituting for popular singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester on the night this show was reviewed) puts it.
Perhaps there was a bit too much shouting as her voice becomes shrill at times. But Fanny Brice was known to have a booming voice. She was Ethel Merman before there ever was an Ethel Merman, so it was realistic.
Ms. McCrimmon’s mezzo-soprano vocals are pure and powerful. Aside from the two iconic songs mentioned previously, she shines in “Who Are You Now?”and “I’m the Greatest Star” among other solos as well as in duets with Stephen Mark Lukas who plays Nick Arnstein, such as “I Want To Be Seen With You”.
Besides her vocal prowess, Ms. McCrimmon’s comedic dialogue and quips bring much joy to the production. Her acting skills are on full display whereby she has those funny moments but can also be convincingly tender during her exchanges with Arnstein. I have no doubt you will hear more about the ultra-talented Katerina McCrimmon in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Hello gorgeous! As Nick Arnstein, Stephen Mark Lukas convincingly plays the role of the suave, sophisticated gambler and schemer. Possessing a muscular baritone voice that matches his muscular pecs, which he flashes all too briefly early in the second act, he shines in duets with Ms. McCrimmon in “I Want To Be Seen With You” and “You Are Woman, I Am Man”. Mr. Lukas also sings proficiently in the ballad “You’re a Funny Girl.”
It was a pity to have missed Melissa Manchester for this performance, but her stand-in, Eileen T’Kaye as Mrs. Brice is fantastic. Quick-witted, strong and supportive, Fanny’s mother is a hoot. Their exchanges are priceless and perfectly timed, and both actors appear to relish their roles with their onstage chemistry being very strong. Ms. T’Kaye sings well in a group number “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and in a duet with Ms. McCrimmon in the reprise of “I’m The Greatest Star” and with Izaiah Montaque Harris who plays Fanny’s good friend Eddie Ryan in “Who Taught Hr Everything She Knows?”.
I’m told that Ms. Manchester will be appearing in subsequent performances.
As the aforementioned singer-dancer Eddie, Mr. Harris excels as the supportive and loyal friend of Fanny. However, his tap-dancing skills are of show-stopping quality. He puts those formidable moves on display at various points in the show and are breathtaking under the tap choreography of Ayodele Casel.
Other notable performers include Walter Coppage as the authoritative, no-nonsense Florenz Ziegfeld; Christine Bunuan as Mrs. Strakosh who is Mrs. Brice’s pushy and comedic friend; Hannah Shankman as Mrs. Meeker; and David Foley, Jr. as the gruff producer Tom Keeney. The remainder of the talented cast and ensemble ably support the lead performers through vocals and dancing.
Scenic Designer David Zinn created an excellent set for the production. The use of varied lighting combinations (designed by Kevin Adams for the proscenium stage) amplifies the visuals. Scenes change flawlessly and efficiently behind a drop-down curtain that include the backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York to an elegant restaurant in Baltimore to an apartment among other locales. The staging is well-coordinated and smooth.
Period costumes designed by Susan Hilferty are colorful and eye-catching and add authenticity to the musical’s timeframe.
The sound designed by Brian Ronan and Cody Spencer is well balanced, and the orchestra led by Elaine Davidson ably brings the wonderful score to life.
All the elements come together beautifully in this triumphant production. There will be laughter and there will be tears, and you will witness the emergence of a budding star in this classic in which tickets remain available.
To paraphrase the song, people who will get to see Funny Girl are the luckiest people in the world.
Running time. Two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission.
Funny Girl runs through October 29 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.
Photos: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade